A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jazz Humor. A reader named Jim Hickson responded with a favorite CD of his, How to Speak Hip, by Del Close and John Brent. This cleverly done, tongue-in-cheek spoken word album was new to me, so thanks for the recommendation, Jim!
Originally released by Mercury Records back in 1959, it’s since been remastered into digital format by Wisecrack Records. It’s a satirical take on the ‘How to’ audio guides that became popular during the 1950s, instead with ‘wise guy’ Del Close provides a comprehensive guide on hip slang, with lessons on proper usage of words like ‘cool,’ ‘dig it,’ ‘drag,’ etc. Their back-and-forth reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s “Shorty Petterstein Interview”: a ‘square’ guy interviewing a jazz hipster.
The beatniks were a youth counterculture movement of the 1950s, a term borrowed from Jack Kerouac’s play, Beat Generation, which he used to characterize New York’s underground, disenfranchised, nonconformist literary types. Rejecting the Korean War, the Cold War and the Establishment, the beatniks instead subscribed to liberal political views and the Beat philosophy of anti-materialism and soul-searching for the purpose of self-improvement.
Wisecrack Records has re-released How to Speak Hip, as a ‘two-fer’ to include the comical DIY Psychoanalysis Kit, which was originally produced by Hanover Records. That was Steve Allen’s label which also released the Jack Kerouac: Blues and Haikus studio album in 1959, featuring the author’s poetry readings, accompanied on sax by Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Kerouac’s syncopated writing was meant to emulate the pace and rhythm of bebop music. At the time, bebop was still more popular than cool jazz. The beatniks and jazz musicians were like the underground movement before the hippies, Haight-Ashbury, Timothy Leary, and LSD in the 1960s.
Del Close (1934–1999) and John Brent (1938–1985) were both actor/comedians of the 1950s. As a well-respected improv-theater comedian, Close mentored the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, and many others.
“Do you dig it? I dig!” Yes, it’s dated. But so what? How to Speak Hip is a fascinating look at the etymology of words like ‘cool’ and ‘crazy,’ which are still in use—if not even more widely so—today. Give it a spin and you’ll earn your right of passage into the ‘cool subculture of jazz hipsters, beatniks, juvenile delinquents, and the criminal fringe.’ Now who can say no to that…?